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Would You Trust Your Brand To The Men (And Women) of Mad Men?

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If your television preferences are anything like mine, you are probably mourning the end of the all-too-brief 3rd season of AMC’s Mad Men, one of the most entertaining and provocative series on television. I can’t believe we have to wait another 8-9 months to find out the fate of the fledgling Sterling Cooper Draper & Pryce agency, to marvel at the flawless period details, and to laugh at Roger Sterling’s reliable one-liners.

In addition to the great writing and acting, another interesting aspect of Mad Men is its clever integration of brand/product placements within the show. Throughout the show’s three seasons, a myriad of brands have been incorporated seamlessly into the story lines – from Heineken, London Fog, Utz and Cadillac to Stolichnaya Vodka, Hilton Hotels, Clearasil and Kodak.

In part, this is enabled by the show’s central construct around the workings and employees of a 1960’s advertising agency. Many of these brands function as Sterling Cooper clients. Others are products featured naturally and logically into the story lines, and are so unforced that it is not until later that you realize that the dinner party serving Heineken beer, or Don telling Pete to grab a drink, “But not the Stoli”, were the shrewd planning of those company’s marketers and the show’s writers. What a refreshing change from the annoyingly obvious, oversized Coke cups perched in front of the American Idol judges that normally passes for product placement.

What is also interesting is the number of brands featured in the show that are as relevant today as they were in the show’s setting nearly 50 years ago. This is vivid reminder of the power of building and nurturing strong and enduring brands – and I can’t help but wonder if the brands being created today will have a similar resonance with consumers 50 years from now.

On its surface, the decision to position brands within Mad Men episodes would seem to be a great move for companies. The show is a critical hit and attracts a smaller but highly desirable audience demographic of affluent, upscale, educated consumers. What company wouldn’t want their brands and products featured as part of core story lines, where target viewers can’t “fast-forward” through like they can with commercials?

But is there a risk to having brands and products featured as props in a show that may not always portray them in a positive light? Does having characters who may be considered irresponsible and borderline alcoholics drink your liquor send a bad message to consumers about your commitment to responsible consumption? Does showing a fictional, morally complex advertising agency, with employees who regularly philander, harass and discriminate portrayed as responsible for building those brands, create an “alternate reality” where these brands become guilty by association? Does the portrayal of legendary hotelier Conrad “Connie” Hilton as a demanding and often irrational client make consumers feel more inclined to stay in a Hilton hotel?

Would you trust your brand to the hands of the Mad Men producers and actors? Is this a great way to build brands, or a risky proposition? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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